- The Business of Ethnography: Strategic Exchanges, People and Organizations
Brian Moeran has written a valuable book on business organization which should be of interest both to a management readership and to anthropologists. To the former, it provides a good introduction to the ethnography of business, while to the latter it presents and defends a new approach to explaining how people organize themselves.
In contrast to most contemporary theories of organization, which focus on the relationships between people inside organizations, Moeran maintains that it is not relationships but "things" that lie at the center of business. Or, as Moeran puts it: [End Page 467]
One of the interesting things about life is precisely . . . things. Things bring people together. They oblige them to interact, and to enter into exchanges .... Things thus take on a "social density." They contribute to and reinforce certain kinds of social relationship and exchange.(p. 1)
Social activity, in this view, revolves around physical things, and relationships between people come about through the fact that the physical things with which they deal oblige them to interact, to engage in exchanges, and to do business. Thus, while much sociological analysis has ignored the place of physical things in forming relationships, Moeran brings this back to the center of the study of business. Moeran argues that the reason why, for example, Japanese and Norwegian whalers can communicate very readily is because in both of these cultures, social relationships take on a certain shape because of the relations of people with physical things—in this case, whales and the equipment used to hunt them.
The book is structured around the three core concepts that Moeran uses to order his "strategic exchange perspective," which he claims to be a new way of looking at agency/structure. This perspective—in looking at how individuals consciously shape and form their social worlds—is an answer to management studies, which normally uses a more static view of business "culture." What are these three core concepts? Moeran calls them "frame," "network," and "field."
"Frame" is a concept borrowed from Gregory Bateson and elaborated on by Erving Goffman as "the organization of experience." 1 Business "frames" develop certain patterns of behavior in participants. Everyone impinges upon other people in social life; frames tell us "who impinges on whom, when, where and why" (p. 5) and what behavior is appropriate.
"Network" describes the relationships of individuals within organizations. Moeran argues that the behavior of individuals can be explained by their position within the various networks in which they participate and by which they communicate with each other. But he stresses that networks also develop between organizations and that we need to look simultaneously at the individual network level and at the interfirm level.
"Field" is an abstract cultural domain, or what Pierre Bourdieu has described as a universe of references, benchmarks, and knowledge that is necessary for participants to take up positions and play their part in the organizational "game." 2 [End Page 468]
Moeran aims to use these terms in a slightly different sense to that of their originators. For example, Goffman used "frame" to describe the organization of individuals' experience,3 but Moeran applies it more broadly to social organization. In the case of "field," he claims that Bourdieu's arguments about cultural production can be applied to many more fields— perhaps even all of them.
To illustrate what he means by these terms, Moeran draws extensive examples from four different periods of his fieldwork. The first was a study of a particular "frame," an isolated community of potters whose relationships revolved around the "things" they made, sold, and exchanged. The second example is used to illustrate "network," a study of the ceramic art market in Japan, where Moeran followed the pots through the marketing chain, from production to consumer, describing the different networks that were involved along the way. Since there are two kinds of networks—those of individuals and those of companies—Moeran uses his fieldwork in the advertising industry to illustrate the latter: how...